Exploring Oracle’s Lawsuit Against Google

There are some who claim that Oracle’s lawsuit against Google, which claims that Google has violated Java licensing in the development of Android, is an abuse by Oracle and displays poor stewardship of the language. Worse, some say it casts a pallor over the use of the Java language in the enterprise. In fact, that’s all far from the truth.

The first thing to understand about this lawsuit is that it relates to Java Micro Edition (Java ME.) This version of Java has different licensing than Java Standard Edition (Java SE) and Java Enterprise Edition (Java EE). The latter are used for enterprise desktop and server application development. Java ME, however, is different.

Some History

When Sun Microsystems released the Java source code, they did so under the open source provision of GPLv2 but included a special exemption for Java ME only. The upshot is that the Java ME license forbids developers from replacing the Java Virtual Machine (JVM).

And that’s precisely what Google did with Android. They used the Java development environment, but then developed their own JVM, which they call Dalvik. Oracle is claiming foul.

When Sun Microsystems developed Java ME, they realized that it was important to promote the use of Java as a new language. One can download Java SE, write code, license it, and sell it for a profit with out paying Sun (now Oracle) a license or royalty fee. But Sun, at the time, also realized that it was important to hold the keys to the kingdom tightly with Java ME, anticipating the use of Java in a myriad of mobile devices, like smartphones. Java EE is more or less in the middle, and I’ll discuss that in a minute.

By implementing Android the way they did, Google is bypassing the license fee for Java ME, according to Oracle. Moreover, and interestingly, it appears that the current lawsuit may be an ambush by Oracle. When Oracle bought Sun, one reference article I used, suggested that Sun proclaimed the licensing terms for Java ME to be worth a significant amount of licensing fee income in the future and worth Oracle’s attention. Oracle’s attorneys paid attention.

That’s just part of the lawsuit. There are patent issues that also come into play and are explained in the SiliconAngle article cited above.

Myth Busting

1. Oracle claims that Google has violated the licensing agreement for the use of Java ME only. Not the Java SE and EE that likely has billions of lines of code running in the enterprise worldwide. Java is far from a damaged language.

2. Oracle claims that Google has violated some specific patents associated with Java. The full text of Oracle’s complaint has those details.

3. Articles that claim that Oracle is violating the spirit of open source and the results will kill Java are uninformed.

Concerns About Oracle

The Infoworld article cited above also points out that with Android claiming 200,000 activations daily, Oracle is using its intellectual property (IP) rights to dip into that revenue stream. Some may believe that Oracle is to be castigated for doing so, and Oracle’s actions portend a money grabbing mentality by Oracle — an effort to make their investment in Sun and Java pay off. They fret about Java EE licensing becoming more onerous in the future and, with some sense of fright, suggest consideration of other languages.

Others may see Oracle’s stance as a natural part of doing business. Oracle is simply saying, as I interpret it, we own the rights to Java, and under certain provisions, we expect to be paid license fees.

The open source community, with some unaware of what Sun included in the Java ME licensing, seems in a tizzy, expecting Oracle to promote all versions of Java as a GPLv2 open source language and never expect a dime in compensation. The verdict is out on how far Oracle may go in the future and what the reaction will be by the Java community, some of whom may be less than fully informed. The matter isn’t helped by scary headlines like this.

Finally, it has not gone unnoticed that Oracle’s CEO Larry Ellison and Steve Jobs are close friends. Slowing down Android would benefit Apple. That, however, seems to be simply serendipity given what Oracle knew in the past about the value of the IP it was obtaining from Sun.

One Attorney’s View

An attorney with an interest in these matters and who often chats with TMO has weighed in on what he thinks the results of the litigation might be.

What would likely happen if Oracle wins on substantially all of its claims of infringement, both copyright and patent? I think that the most likely outcome is a negotiated settlement, where Google takes a license for Java ME, pays damages, and Dalvik is either destroyed or ownership of it is transferred to Oracle. In this scenario, the court finds for Oracle, but holds off on issuing an injunction to give Oracle and Google an opportunity to settle. Needless to say that settlement would be on Oracle’s terms. For Google, the worst outcomes, in order of importance would, likely be:

1. Google would lose Dalvik, would have to use standard Java ME, and thus, would lose control of its tailored version of the Java application framework. That would greatly hinder Google’s ability to innovate, as it would depend on Oracle for Java ME and therefore, could not innovate a significant part of Android, its Java application framework.

2. There should not be much of a disruption for developers, because their apps are written in standard Java using standard Java tools, so their apps should run on Java ME without much modification. The real disruption would be the roadmap for Android, which would be void. And the future roadmap for developers would be uncertain, until Oracle set forth its roadmap for Java ME for formerly Android devices.

3. Google would have to pay a large amount of damages. I can’t give a reasonable estimate, but I would not be surprised to see a figure of around two billion dollars plus legal fees. I am basing that on what Microsoft had to pay Sun for infringing on Java when Microsoft tried, back in the 1990s, to make its custom version of Java that would run only under Windows.

The real bone of contention in the settlement negotiations would be over the fate of Dalvik. Google would be willing to pay much more to get a license from Oracle that let it keep Dalvik with the right to innovate as it pleased. However, it is unlikely that Oracle would permit that, because it creates a bad legal and practical precedent. Practically, one would have two version of Java ME, which could become increasingly incompatible. And legally, Oracle would be giving Google permission to make a custom version of Java.

While Oracle can license a custom version of Java to Google without losing its right to forbid others from doing so, that undercuts Oracle’s argument that there can be only one version of Java ME so that all apps are compatible. Oracle isn’t going to want and won’t accept the precedent of two or more versions of Java ME. At best, Google would have to transfer Dalvik to Oracle with the agreement that Oracle would incorporate certain elements of Dalvik into JME, but I doubt that Oracle would accept that either, though it might.

An important question is whether, if Google loses, it could abandon Java. Oracle certainly would not support a transition from Java ME to Google’s proprietary mobile OS and app framework and tools. And if Google loses here, it will mean that the court finds the type of translation that Dalvik (Java code to Android code) is infringing, so Google won’t be able to do that. So if Google were to abandon Java, it might have to do so cold turkey, which would mean all the apps in the Android market place won’t run on Google’s new OS. That, I think, would be a disaster. But losing control of Android or at least an essential part of it to Oracle is bad, not as bad as losing the entire Android market place, but it is bad.


The goal of any business is to make money and protect its IP. Some would prefer to ascribe evil intentions to Oracle, to get their way with a generally beloved language, Java, but that’s over and above the facts of the case. The links to the complaint and the referenced articles (except the sensationalistic one) are going to be a lot more helpful for those who want to really understand what’s going on.